Five top clashes in at the French Open
The finger wag. The shotmaking. Three hours and 39 minutes of sporting theatre between two of the greats. This is one of those matches I’ve watched again - as in the whole thing. It was mesmerising. It was cool and overcast in Paris that Friday afternoon/evening, which meant the clay ‘played slower,’ ie - the ball came off the court slower because it collected more clay, than it would on a sunny day, when it tends to be ‘faster’. Despite this, the pair played as if on a hard court. Djokovic came into the semi on a 43-match unbeaten run that year and was favourite. They shared some hypnotic rallies, the best of which came in the seventh game of the fourth set and was ended with a jaw-dropping Federer backhand down the line.
Serena Williams vs Justine Henin 2003 semi-final (Henin 6-2, 4-6, 7-5)
The quality of tennis in this match was quickly forgotten, which is a real pity, because there were more than a few breathtaking rallies. Williams’ power is somewhat nullified at Roland Garros which is why it’s her least successful ‘slam’. Still many would kill to win the thing three times as she’s done. Henin loved the clay and put on a stunning performance all through the drama that she caused. Williams was leading 4-2 in the final set and serving at 30-0, seemingly on her way to victory. She had correctly disputed a call with the umpire, but the French crowd - very partisan and backing Henin - didn’t like it. They whistled as Williams stepped up to serve and then Henin put her hand up. Williams had served anyway, missed the serve but told the umpire about Henin having her hand up to delay the start of the point. The umpire didn’t see it, and Henin said she didn’t do it. Williams served and lost the point, and with it her momentum.
“I was a little disappointed with her,” Williams said of Henin. “I probably still should have won the game. It definitely didn’t turn around the match. But I think to start lying and fabricating, it’s not fair. It was just a tough crowd out there today, really very tough; story of my life.”
Gaston Gaudio vs Guillermo Coria 2004 Final (Gaudio won 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6)
Both players choked. Coria did so first - and most often - when he started cramping late in the fourth set as the meaning of victory entered his mind. And in the fifth, the Argentinians swopped chokes throughout. Coria led 3-1, got nervous, the set was tied at 4-4 when Coria broke and served for the title, but he missed three consecutive forehands and the match was tied at 5-5. Coria broke in the next game and served for the match again, earning two match points. Again he couldn’t convert. Gaudio eventually broke in the 14th game to win the title.
Martina Hingis vs Steffi Graf 1999 Final (Graf won 4-6, 7-5, 6-2)
Drama, drama, drama. Hingis won the first set in what was Graf’s last appearance at the French Open. Then it fell apart. Desperate to complete the set of ‘slams’ she lost control - 2-0 up in the second set, Hingis crossed to Graf’s side to dispute a call. The Swiss fought to a 5-4 lead, served for the title, but big hitting from the German saw her break and then rally to force a deciding set. It rapidly unravelled for Hingis - she served under-arm a couple of times, disputed calls with the umpire. Even Graf got cross enquiring at one point: “Can we just play tennis?” When it was over, Hingis’ mother had to coax her back to the court for the trophy ceremony after she’d left the arena in a huff.
Michael Chang vs Ivan Lendl 1989 Fourth Round (Chang won 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2)
Ivan Lendl unfairly garnered a reputation as being a robot. That was almost certainly the result of the ‘Cold War’ rivalry he had with the more animated John McEnroe. Lendl dominated for a period in Paris, winning the tournament in three out of the previous four years, when he faced 17 year old Chang in the round of 16.
Chang could barely walk for periods in the last set and half, he was gulping water between points because he was cramping so badly, would hit high balls (moon shots to give himself time to stay in the point), delivered a couple of underarm serves, and tried everything to put the then no.1 player off, even standing on the service line to receive. It worked. He’d go on to win the title that year as well.